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By Diarmuid Hester
Despite the American setting for many of his films and documentaries, Antonello Branca is little known outside of his native Italy. Born in Rome in 1935, Branca trained as a photographer before making his first film, Un italiano guarda Londra [An Italian Watches London] in 1961. Having worked for a number of years for Italian TV, in 1966 he set up the Filmmaker Research Group with Raffaele De Luca before leaving for the US to film what would become What’s Happening?
Now available online, What’s Happening? is a wonderfully evocative documentary portrait of New York’s artistic scene at the end of the 1960s – brilliantly paced, infused with rock n roll and jazz cadence, and the cacophony of the modern metropolis : the loud incessant hum of cars and trucks interrupted by radio news items and stippled with radio advertisements. It features interviews and discussions with writers, artists and musicians drawn from New York’s countercultural and pop art scenes: pop artists, like Andy Warhol, Fred Mogubgub and Roy Lichtenstein speak seductively about their work’s intent to channel the commercialised aesthetic of modern America, while eccentric art collector Leon Kraushar damns the past as “history” declaiming that the culture of today is “strong it’s new – this is it – that’s all there is”.
Meanwhile, Allen Ginsberg, in his trademark lurching monotone, peers down the camera’s lens and attests that the modern city proves the veracity of Futurist Marinetti’s “wildest, most poetic” predictions: “The space age is upon us – science fiction days… factories are hanging from the sky by threads of smoke to the smoke stacks and everyone in the United States is getting high on LSD or doing yoga.” In a curious moment Ginsberg claims that an assembled – all male – group of artists and filmmakers (Jonas Mekas, Warhol, Gerard Malanga, The Fugs, Peter Orlovsky) have joined together to take over the world: a patriarchal culture replaced by its opposite, perhaps – a patriarchal counterculture. Branca is quick to capitalise upon the absence of any female presence in Ginsberg’s radical quorum and juxtaposes this scene with shots of Marie Benois alone, walking the streets of the great metropolis. Altogether it’s a bewildering, fascinating portrayal of the energy – but also confusion – that must have made the city an exciting place to be at the time.
It is, however, a largely apolitical film – one whose eschewal of politics may very well derive from the subjects to which it is dedicated: pop art’s capacity to critique rather than merely replicate ideology, needless to say, is a thorny issue. A couple of years later, still based in the US, Branca would make a radical leap to political filmmaking following the American Black Panthers in his docu-fiction film Seize the Time (1970). Banned from 1971’s Venice film festival, and recently re-released, Seize… enters at a troubled period in the history of the movement: as Branca’s collaborator Nobuko Miyamoto writes,
“In New York we shoot the Young Lords’ takeover of a Church in East Harlem; back to Los Angeles, we shoot the Panther Erica Huggins giving birth to her baby. Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, Huey in prison, in California. The Panthers come to a political split. How could Antonello think to make a film in such a dangerous and chaotic period? That documentary was in his mind like improvising in jazz, made of people and situations met on the way as the world was spinning around us.”
Given unprecedented access to key figures, Branca’s film offers intimate documentary footage of Black Panther leaders and allies, combined with fictional elements that seem to append the director’s own critique, developing a nuanced portrait of American imperialism’s systemic exploitation, which courses beneath the country’s racial tensions that are its symptom and its disguise.
Though he continued to work for Italian TV on Italian issues (for example, the deplorable working and living conditions in the city of Naples), he was repeatedly drawn to America and American politics: one of his most notable projects is a series of documentaries (1989 – 1993) that attempt to transcribe the correlation of war and technological advancement (along with lobbying and economic investment) within the context of American politics from the eighteenth century until the contemporaneous Gulf War.
I can’t find out many details about his fascinating final project, which seems to be some great fictional re-imagining of the history of the United States, starting with the Great Depression and produced with Vincenzo Mundo. Unfortunately Branca died before this was completed, on 25th June 2002.
Rapporto Confidenziale (short articles about Seize the Time – in Italian)